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‘Til You Run Out of Cake

While Eileene was away on an overnight business trip, I dug out Katamari Damacy to keep me busy. It’s still fun. It’s a shame the sequels kind of fizzled, but I think that was inevitable because of what Katamari Damacy was.

Elegance in game design can be a wonderful thing. If you’ve got a game mechanic that is at once simple and capable of producing complex challenges, you hardly need anything else. See Go, Tetris, and Pacman for instructive examples. Add a little humor in the form of a character like the superlatively zany King of Cosmos, and you’ve got a smash hit on your hands.

Unfortunately, elegance has its limits, specifically that you can only exploit a simple game mechanic so far before you either run out of ideas or have to add so many new elements that you destroy the elegance. That’s why Katamari Damacy was a one-hit wonder: the first version pretty much did everything there was to do to explore the exponential growth of a snowball. The King of Cosmos remained his wacky self, but there just wasn’t anything else for the sequels to explore without adding things that simply weren’t sufficiently katamari-ish.

Which brings me to the buzz about Portal 2. The teaser trailer is all over the web, and you can find a few snippets of game play if you hunt around a bit. And it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. There is no way in hell it’s going to be as good as the original. Quite apart from the difficulty of topping near-perfection, the addition of elements like extra-bouncy gel and slippery gel and laser-pointing lenses and vacuum tubes and an ability to form your own tunnels mid-air means you’ll be learning what each new element does, rather than experiencing multiple, serial satori in discovering all the cool things your one toy can do. That was a wonderful element of the original, and the source of much of its success. I understand that’s how the game began: somebody made the portal gun for Half-Life, and it got axed because it was too powerful…but developers couldn’t stop playing with it, even when they were supposed to be coding. I have every confidence Portal 2 will be fun. There will be cake. Just not the cake you want to believe in.

GlaDOS, though, she’ll always be awesome, just like King of Cosmos. How could you ever doubt that? You monster.

Postscript: I had to remove the link to the game play bits; I guess they were deliberately made available only for a limited time. Go figure.

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